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Whether by Hand or by Machine, It's Time to Count the Ballots

Sean Hurley
Thornton Town Clerk Brook Rose with the old voting box, in use since 1892.

While most New Hampshire’s cities and towns will use machines to count votes this Primary Day, many towns still do things the old-fashioned way: hand-counted ballots.  But fewer towns stick to that method every year. This year, five new towns have opted to go the automated tabulator route. NHPR's Sean Hurley lives in one of those towns: Thornton.  He visited Town Hall to see how officials there are faring with the newfangled device.

Thornton’s three Supervisors of the Checklist -- Mary Pelchat, Cindy McAuley, and Gloria Kimball -- say this year's presidential primary is going to be exhausting. "It's just been a crazy year," Pelchat says, "and I work in a town office in another town and their Supervisors are just as nuts as we are!"

"It's wicked," Supervisor Cindy McAuley adds. 

Why is that, I ask?

"You don't want to be responsible for any recounts!" Pelchat says.

"We don't want do a coin flip either!" says McAualey.

"That town! It's that town, it's their fault!" says Pelchat.

"Every four years it's awful," Supervisor Gloria Kimball says with a laugh. 

Credit Sean Hurley
Thornton Town Moderator Bob Gannett testing the tabulator with Supervisor of the Checklist Gloria Kimball.

On Primary Day, Pelchat explains, the supervisors main job is to oversee Thornton's checklist of 1,700 registered voters. 

"We prepare the checklist," she says, "keeping up on all the law changes and then, as people come in, registering them to vote if they're not registered, checking them in, making sure they're on the checklist if they're not."

After the polls close, historically, the Supervisors have helped hand count the ballots.  But not this year, Town Administrator Tammie Beaulieu says.  

"The town of Thornton in the past has always used the original ballot box," she says, "so this year the town decided to purchase a tabulator because there have been meetings, especially during presidential years, when the selectmen have been here to 1:30 in the morning, as well as the moderator and the supervisors."

But, as Town Clerk Brook Rose explains, that original ballot box, in continual use in Thornton since the 1892 presidential election between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, won't be fully retired,

"We'll use it as a backup if the tabulator were to break down," Rose says, "which we know won't happen!  But we still have it!"

Credit Sean Hurley
Mike Carlson, from LHS Associates, showing Moderator Bob Gannett (right) how to use the tabulator. With Gloria Kimball (left) and Town Clerk Brook Rose looking on.

Going the tabulator route takes a bit of training. Mike Carlson, the tabulator vendor from LHS Associates, arrives to begin the state mandated tabulator test. "This is called the logic and accuracy test," he says, "it's to mark the ballots logically and accurately so that when we pass them through the tabulator we prove that the tabulator is reading the ballots as marked correctly."

Carlson hands Town Moderator Bob Gannett a stack of 100 ballots and says, "These are the testers that they have provided for each town in New Hampshire that's using the tabulator."

For the test, each of the test ballots will be marked and tracked by Moderator Gannet and Supervisor Gloria Kimball.

When done, Carlson collects up the hand-marked ballots and everyone gathers around the tabulator -- a bland typewriter-sized scanner locked on top of the black, trashbarrel-like ballot receptacle.  Carlson asks Moderator Gannett to enter the ballots into the tabulator, one at a time.

After the ballots have been sent through the tabulator, Moderator Gannett presses a series of buttons to request the tabulator's final tallies and Supervisor Pelchat expresses her satisfaction with the new machine.

"I'm so happy we don't have to count ballots anymore!" she says.

Moderator Gannett then reads off the tabulator's tallies as Town Clerk Rose verifies the numbers against the actual ballot counts.

Credit Sean Hurley
Thornton's old ballot box, in use since 1892.

Though the test was 100-percent accurate, Mike Carlson reminds them that any problem with the tabulator can always be solved the old fashioned way.

"If these numbers aren't in sync with what you want to see," Carlson says, "then it's just taking the paper ballots and looking at each one to find out where the error is.  That's all you need to do."

Hand counting is what he means.  And just like the old voting box on standby in the closet, the ways and means of 1892 won't be all that far away. 

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at

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